state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

the return

An innovative elementary school — a product of Denver education reform — tries to get back to normal post-strike

PHOTO: Centennial Elementary
Teachers last year at Centennial Elementary, which reinvented itself as an expeditionary learning school.

Nic Savinar tried to maintain a measure of normalcy for three days in her fifth grade classroom at Centennial Elementary School in northwest Denver, even as her students asked awkward questions about why she was still there when most teachers were out.

Walking in the door, she had a fleeting thought that someone from outside the school community might join the picket line and lash out at her. Her fellow teachers marching in the cold lent nothing but support, sending her texts throughout the day checking in.

Then not long after 6 a.m. Thursday, word started getting around that the Denver teacher strike was over. Principal Laura Munro’s phone blew up after her morning Crossfit workout. Munro ended up getting to school late because excited teachers kept texting her.

With the three-day strike about teacher pay ending with a tentative deal that gave both sides reason to feel good, Denver schools spent Thursday in a strange in-between place as substitutes and central office staff fill-ins reported for duty and striking teachers returned.

The labor action and its sudden conclusion posed a test for the 147 district-run schools affected by the strike and the 71,000 students in grades K-12 who attend them. Centennial just a few years ago was at risk of closure due to persistently poor academic performance. The school started to turn around after it reinvented itself in 2013 as an expeditionary school, where teachers in each grade weave a year-long “expedition” theme into their everyday lessons.

The school, in a gentrified neighborhood in a city that has become less affordable for families and teachers alike, would not exist in its current form without the kind of education reform that has gained Denver both a national reputation and opposition from the union and its allies.

“We have worked really hard to build a positive and trusting culture,” said Munro, who has been principal for eight years. “Even that being said, trying times can make any situation difficult.”

Of the 32 teachers, nurses, counselors, and other educators at Centennial covered by the teachers contract, all but six took part in the strike on Monday, Munro said. One teacher returned to the classroom Tuesday, and a nurse came back Wednesday, she said.

Those are higher strike participation figures than in the district as a whole. Between 56 and 58 percent of teachers were out each day, Denver Public Schools has said.

Savinar was among those Centennial teachers who remained in the classroom. But it wasn’t because she disagreed with the union’s opposition to many aspects of ProComp, the once-promising pay-for-performance system that was the subject of negotiations.

Savinar recently took maternity leave, much of it unpaid. She and her husband crunched the numbers —  taking into account that teachers strikes typically last a week — and concluded that foregoing a paycheck, as striking teachers must do, was not something they could afford.

The irony is not lost on Savinar: She couldn’t afford to strike to improve her salary prospects.

“There was a lot of thought behind it, and it was definitely a financial decision,” she said, pointing out that her Centennial colleagues who remained in classrooms all have children 1 or younger. “It was a very challenging decision for every single person, I’m sure.”

A ninth-year teacher, Savinar left a job in neighboring Jeffco Public Schools to join Centennial four years ago. She said she was won over by the people and by expeditionary learning.

The school has a vegetable garden, an outdoor classroom with log benches, and a devoted corps of parent volunteers. For a recent lesson on biodiversity, Savinar took her students to Denver Botanic Gardens to visit a rainforest exhibit. They learned about different habitats and species of plants. Students who are now working on writing first-person narratives written from an animal’s perspective, like a jaguar or an exotic bird that makes its home in the lush canopy.

That a district-run public school would offer a model like expeditionary learning is unusual, and it’s part of Denver Public Schools’ philosophy of offering families a variety of school choices.

Centennial is also an innovation school, which means it doesn’t need to follow all aspects of state law or the teachers union contract. That allows for a much longer school day, for one. The opening bell rings at 8 a.m. and dismissal is at 3:45 p.m., with an 80-minute enrichment period.

Savinar is a “teacher-leader,” spending part of her time teaching and part of it coaching other teachers — another initiative that other U.S. school districts look to Denver to emulate.

Savinar said her support for the union stance during ProComp bargaining was rooted mostly in supporting an increase in all teachers’ base pay and in cost-of-living increases. She said she loves the flexibility that innovation status affords teachers and students both.

“It’s all relative, I guess,” she said. “Completely depends on what teachers are wanting in their school community.”

During the strike, Munro kept a detailed spreadsheet of classroom assignments, using a combination of regular teachers, substitutes, central office staff temporarily reassigned to schools, and her own preschool teachers who were available because DPS shut its preschools.

All but two classrooms were covered by certified teaching staff during the strike, she said.

Because of the timing of the tentative agreement, Thursday was more chaotic than when teachers were on strike, she said. Although all the striking teachers returned, the school retained a few substitutes to honor their commitments. Central office staff helped cover classrooms until late-arriving teachers got to work, then went back to their regular jobs.

“People had been gone three days and were just trying to put the puzzle pieces back together,” Savinar said. “People were scrambling a little bit because teachers are always prepared for their students, and they were feeling unprepared, coming into I am not sure what.”

Centennial will move on from the disruption of the strike at a time it faces its owns challenges. What was once a predominantly Latino student population has grown whiter and wealthier, driven by neighborhood changes and the appeal of expeditionary learning.

Having fewer students whose families live in poverty cost Centennial its Title I status, and the extra funding that goes with it. Munro said school officials knew it was coming and planned accordingly, accounting for the lost revenue over a two-year period and lessening the blow.

The older grades at Centennial are more diverse than kindergarten and the earlier grades, so as a fifth-grade teacher Savinar has a more diverse class than most.  

Next up, her students will begin a module on inequality. She and a returning colleague struck upon an idea Thursday: including a discussion about the issues underlying the strike. It’s in keeping with expeditionary learning’s aspiration to connect learning to real-world events.

So in the near future, Nic Savinar’s fifth-grade students at Centennial Elementary could talk about the issues that kept their teacher in school while her colleagues picketed outside.

teacher prep

Report: Tennessee’s teacher prep programs are doing a better job, but graduating fewer educators

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Oliver Morrison
Teacher candidates undergo training through Memphis Teacher Residency in 2014. The nontraditional training program is among eight in Tennessee that scored in the top tier on the State Board of Education's latest report card.

Tennessee’s teacher training programs improved or maintained their scores on a report card released Friday, even as the number of would-be educators they graduated dipped for a third straight year.

Eight of the state’s 40 programs received the top overall score in 2018, while seven others moved up one notch to earn the second-highest scores. None of the programs saw their overall ratings decrease on the four-point scale, with 4 being the best.

Nontraditional training programs continued to excel, with Memphis Teacher Residency, Teach for America in Memphis and Nashville, and the New Teacher Project in Nashville all achieving a top ranking.

Among traditional programs, Lipscomb University in Nashville, Union University in Jackson, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville maintained their top scores, while Christian Brothers University in Memphis broke into the top tier as well.

“We’re now seeing a greater distribution of top scores” among traditional and nontraditional programs, said Sara Morrison, executive director of the State Board of Education.

That’s important because university-based programs produce about 90 percent of the state’s new teachers.

The State Board issues its annual report card to gauge how well programs are preparing candidates for the classroom and whether they’re meeting the needs of school districts and the goals of the state. Criteria includes a profile of graduates over the past three years, their placement and retention in Tennessee public schools, and their observation and growth scores on their evaluations on the job.

The latest report card is the third under a redesigned grading system that launched after a 2016 report said most of the state’s training programs weren’t equipping teachers to be highly effective in their classrooms. It was a big red flag because the quality of teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

“We have seen an improvement in overall scores year after year,” said Morrison, noting that more first-year teachers are being retained and are helping their students show gains on state standardized tests.

Also encouraging: More recent graduates were prepared for teaching positions that districts struggle to fill every year, including English as a Second Language, Spanish, special education, high school math, and high school science.

On the flipside, the report card showed a gradual decline in the number of teacher candidates completing their training programs.

That troubling trend comes as the state braces for half of its 65,000 teachers to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Every program is looking to improve their recruitment strategies,” said Amy Owen, the board’s policy director, who spoke with reporters on the eve of the report’s release.

Another continued concern is lagging diversity among teacher candidates. Only 15 percent are people of color, compared with 35 percent of the state’s student population — a challenge since research shows that students of color are more likely to succeed academically when taught by teachers of color.

Among the report card’s other highlights, Tennessee Tech University, one of the state’s largest teacher training programs, improved its overall score to reach the second-highest rating. So did Belmont University, King University, Maryville College, Milligan College, Trevecca Nazarene University, and Western Governors University.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sara Morrison is executive director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

The University of Memphis maintained its score in the second-highest tier, as did Austin Peay, East Tennessee State, and Middle Tennessee State. All three are among the state’s largest training programs.

Morrison applauded programs for increasingly aligning their training to the state’s newest academic standards, especially in the area of literacy, and for collaborating more with nearby school districts to meet their needs.

“Some programs have even begun implementing dual-certification models so that their candidates are prepared to teach both an area like elementary education and either special education or English as a Second Language,” she said. “The result is a win-win situation, with teachers being more prepared and in-demand, districts having ready access to the educators they need, and education preparation providers improving on the state report card.”

You can view the full report card here and find previous report cards here.